Such is The Atlantic’s solution to the problem of bullying:

Instead of asking why bullies bully, scientists led by University of Illinois psychology professor Karen D. Rudolph are beefing up the coping side of bullying research by looking into why victims retaliate, ignore, or repair relationships after an attack. Through a series of surveys to 373 second-graders and their teachers, they investigated how each child approached and valued his or her peer relationships, how many of the children had been bullied, and how they responded to such attacks.

The data was revelatory. Though it wasn’t astounding to find out that half of the children reported being the object of taunts, gossip, or intimidation, how they reacted to their harassers was. The key to anticipating victims’ responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place. That is, kids who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

From a moral perspective, it is, of course, beyond agitating that we put the burden on the bullied to smart their way out of the situation. Of course, as I’ve said in the past, there is a certain logic to it. After all, it’s the victims that care what’s happening. It’s the victims that agree with society as a whole that bullying is a bad thing. It’s not, of course, the bullies themselves.

And there are some truths to this. While some people will get bullied no matter what, there are different ways to cope with it and some are more productive than others. There were three things that worked for me, two of which involved changes on my part and the third a system change at the school district.

If we look at the public school popularity echelon as we look at economics, I was a low-class kid. One thing that improved my situation was making middle class friends. The more of those I had, the less of a target I was. Middle class folks have at least some upper class friends, and the bullies to some extent watch themselves. The more you surround yourself with people that the bullies don’t want to get into it with, the more they will target people that are alone or that associate in target-rich environments. Of course, this was a negative-sum approach. Being less a target than the next guy doesn’t help the whole. Unless you become middle class yourself and lend aid to lower class people. I did this a little, though not much.

The second thing I did was crass bribery, which no school would recommend but which worked for me. Instead of giving away money, I helped a couple of bullies with their homework. On the first order they stopped picking on me and even became friends of sorts, but on a second order they provided a degree of implicit protection. They never threatened other bullies, but so long as I was on friendly terms with the former bullies, the others started avoiding me. Unlike the previous, this actually may have been positive-sum. Not only did the bullies I bribed not go after me, they also stopped going after my friends. And I think there was a net gain. (My friends didn’t receive the second-order effects that I did, however.) It was this that got me through my eighth grade year.

The third change was a systems one, and I believe a positive net gain. I changed schools, from a relatively unwealthy middle school to a wealthy high school. The bullies were vastly outnumbered, and made smaller by the fact that the worst were shipped off to the alternative school. I hated my high school, but it was great in this respect. It provided me enough breathing room that I could at first be invisible, and then start making middle class friends.

My experience in substituting has reinforced the notion that dealing with bullies – at least from an institutional standpoint – is exceptionally hard. Even for teachers and administrators that mean well. Last spring I mentioned a story at Pitts Elementary where two kids got into a fight, of sorts, and when the detention slips were sent out one of the kids was crying and the other was showing it off to all of his friends. How, precisely, do you punish a kid who shows off his punishment slips to all of his friends?

Category: School

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6 Responses to Behavior Modification of the Bullied

  1. Logtar says:

    I was never very effective at coming up with strategies, which leads me to think that it was probably not as constant at some other people experienced. Most of the bullies that I dealt with were cowards that did things to my possessions without me knowing who did it. The times that it got beyond that it was not for a long period of time.

    I think I was more of an easy target for frustration that a constant target. I know later in life I found out that one of my bullies did actually hate me but had no idea why. It makes no sense in my head to take action without provocation.

    I guess at that point this way of approaching the problem is a lot more effective. If the bullied act in positive ways, there might be a better outcome. Some bullies might not even know the source of their behavior.

  2. stone says:

    The problem is that some people are *looking* for targets, and if one escapes they will simply move onto someone else. Someone needs to be in the shit position. Yet many people don’t want to believe this, they want to think it’s the result of a personality conflict that can be resolved. I personally think most bullying is inevitably going to happen to *someone,* and the person chosen will be the person with the fewest or weakest allies. Every system has its dumpee. End of story.

  3. web says:

    I eventually, thrice in my younger schooling, hit the point where the only thing to do was hit the bully back.

    Twice, doing so led to every bully in the school giving me a wide berth for ~2 years after.

    It should be noted, however, that this does not always work. For situations in which multiple bullies are operating as a group, this especially doesn’t work. The first time I did it, that is what happened: the bully himself was punished, and warned that he’d be sent to an alternative school if it happened again. His friends, meanwhile, set to work on his behalf against me as proxy. The end of it came when I moved to a different school.

  4. trumwill says:

    I think that there is a difference between saying “We can get rid of bullying by fixing the victims” and saying “We can reduce bullying by modifying victim behavior.” The first is transparently false. The second may have some truth to it. But even at some point, there does comes to question of the morality of asking all kids to walk on eggshells so that comparatively few kids won’t go after them as often.

    Web brings up a good point about different bullying situations being different. This also brings to mind a concern that even if victim modification is successful, it could have an adverse effect on the remaining bullied because it would be assumed that it should work for them and if it’s not working for them obviously it’s their fault.

    (There is a connection in here with regard to weight-loss and obesity.)

  5. web says:


    Part of the problem is, there are different types of bullies.

    There are bullies who are acting as bullies because it puts them in the “middle of the pack”; if they can be seen by those above them to be bullying someone “lower”, then the upper bullies tend to give some measure of approval and let them be.

    There are the bullies who travel in a pack, and pick on others outside the pack because the others approve of doing so and “have their back.”

    There are the top-of-the-top bullies, who are bullies simply because it gives them the feeling of power over others.

    In my case, once I retaliated against a group, as I said, I had “disresprected” the group… call it a gang if you like, the description is not far off.

    In the other cases, one of them was one of the “top of the top” bullies, and one was one of the “middle line” bullies.

    The insistence that the bullied are somehow “bringing it on themselves”, however, is ridiculous, and I’ll challenge anyone who holds that notion up. There is no excuse for bullying or inflicting mental and physical harm upon a fellow student. The saddest part of the “bringing it on themselves” is that it absolves the administration – teachers, principals, etc – of both the responsibility to monitor their school and maintain a safe environment and the responsibility to properly investigate and deal with the behavior when it’s reported. In my cases, fighting back was a result of knowing that, no matter WHAT I did, the administration didn’t give a crap. The risk of being punished for “being in a fight” was far outweighed by the feeling that reporting the bullying behavior wasn’t just falling on deaf ears, it was actually getting me a reputation as a “tattletale” and “wimp” who wouldn’t fight back, which made the situation worse.

  6. Logtar says:

    But web, that is what modern society is all about, holding institutions less responsible! Its ALL up the individual. 🙂

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